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Color Palettes for Winter Landscape Paintings

Color Palettes for Winter Landscape Paintings

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Depending on your color palette, a snow scene can have a frosty feel or a warm glow.

Looking for some watercolor inspiration to get you through the cold winter months? There are many ways to explore color, even when your view is blanketed in snow. In this article by artist Geoff Kersey, learn ways to shift your palette from cool to warm in winter landscape paintings.

A Wintry Mood

Ever since I began painting more than 25 years ago, I’ve enjoyed creating snow scenes in winter landscape paintings. I think this is partly because I’m attracted to the simplifying effect of the white cloak across the landscape. I like the way the sky colors are echoed through the thin shadows and the contrast between the snow and the rich winter darks of trees and hedgerows.

We all know that snow appears white, but as you can see from the following examples, there are numerous techniques and color schemes you can use to depict its effect in your winter landscape paintings.

Pick Your Palette

Snow, of course, sets the scene for many a wintry landscape. However other factors come into play—including palette selection, light and perspective. Here I share three palettes—cold, limited and warm—that I use to establish the foundation for a snowy scene, as well as how I use light and perspective to further the ambience.

Cold Palette

I’m fortunate to have some excellent painting subjects ready to inspire me right at my doorstep. I live in the UK’s Derbyshire Dales, on the edge of the Peak District National Park. I particularly enjoy painting in areas featuring remnants of the 19th and early-20th centuries, which have since been softened by nature. Cromford Canal in Winter (below) is a good example of this type of subject. I took the reference photo on a particularly cold New Year’s Day walk. I was so inspired by the scene that I created the painting the next day.

Choosing a cold palette featuring plenty of wintry grays and darks, I substituted my usual choice of cobalt blue for phthalo blue, which is a slightly greener, cooler blue. This produced a cool gray when mixed with a touch of burnt umber. I used this gray as a thin wash in the sky and as a slightly stronger wash in the background to hint at the distant, misty shapes of the trees.

Bring in the Light

When I took the photo, the sun was setting, creating a soft pink glow, which I re-created by mixing Naples yellow and a bit of rose madder. Next, I put a touch of a slightly warmer color—an orange made from raw sienna and burnt sienna—at the point where we lose sight of the river as it disappears around the bend. This little splash of color leads the viewer’s eye into the scene, and is helped by the cluster of figures hunched against the cold wind.

To create the dark brown in the silhouetted trees on the right, I mixed burnt umber and French ultramarine. To make the ivy-clad tree on the left, I used a rich dark green mix of phthalo blue and burnt umber.

Even though they’re both representative of cold winter days, this painting has a colder feel than Woodland Path in the demo below, which relies more on slightly warmer colors for its welcome glow.

Limited Palette

In this scene at Chatsworth Park (below), I’m looking into the light, which reduces much of the detail to silhouettes. When tackling a subject like this, I always use a limited palette. Here I’ve used just four colors: cobalt blue, neutral tint, burnt sienna and raw sienna. This bare-bones palette gives the scene a simple, harmonious feeling.

Light and Perspective

To suggest looking into a milky, weak sun, I dampened the entire sky with clean water, leaving just a small circle of clean, dry paper. I then concentrated the raw sienna around it during the painting stage.

To achieve the “overexposed” appearance of the branches with the sun behind them, I painted them as I normally would; however, once they were dry, I brushed over them with clean water before dabbing them with a tissue until they faded. This technique required a light touch, because I didn’t want to overdo things and completely wash them away.

The strong use of linear perspective—not just the trees but also the shadows—leads the viewer into the painting. The small silhouetted figures add a touch of narrative and scale. Plus the weaker, grayer mixture used on the distant trees adds to the feeling of receding space.

Warm Palette

Winter in Halldale Woods (below), while still a winter scene, is markedly different from Chatsworth Park, in that the color is much warmer. The painting is suffused with a warm afternoon glow, which I made by combining raw sienna and cadmium red. This color is then echoed on the light side of the tree trunks on the right and in the dry-stone wall on the left of the path. This painting proves that just because it’s a winter scene, it doesn’t have to make the viewer shiver.

There’s an overarching linear perspective in this rural winter-scape—from the distant meadow and fence posts on the left, to the path and its ruts in the center, to the foliage on the right. All of these elements lead the viewer to the focal point where the path disappears out of view.

See the step-by-step below to see how I build Woodland Path using a warm palette.

Woodland Path Demo

Step 1

I began by drawing the outlines of the scene using a 2B pencil, taking care not to make the lines too dark. During this pre-painting stage, I often fade the lines for the most distant parts of the scene by gently going over them with a putty rubber.

Step 2

This is very much a wet- into-wet stage. I began by mixing a selection of colors: a very thin wash of aureolin; thin washes of vermilion and cobalt blue; a slightly thicker gray mixed from cobalt blue and vermilion, with a touch of burnt sienna; and a rich, dark green of a much thicker consistency made from viridian, French ultramarine and burnt sienna.

I wet the entire background, except for the path, with clean water, using a 1-inch flat brush. I then put in the washes with a No. 16 round brush.

It’s vital at this stage to leave the color very light at the point where the path bends out of view. Later on, this bright light leads the viewer’s eye along the path. I left the path itself as untouched paper, apart from the foreground, which I tinted with a thin wash of vermilion and a hint of the aureolin wash.

Step 3

I put in the winter trees using the gray mix. As the trees progress from the distance to the middle distance, I strengthened this color gradually by adding more paint. I painted the larger trees in the middle distance using a rich dark brown mixed from burnt sienna and French ultramarine. I painted the distant trees with a No. 2 round brush, switching to a No. 4 for the wider, nearer trees; however, even on the nearest/widest trees, I used the fine point of the No. 2 to paint the fine branches.

Step 4

I always think it’s a good idea to mix shadow color from the same blue as used in the sky to give the painting cohesion and continuity. I mixed a thin wash of cobalt blue for the shadows and brushed them in. Starting at the distant part of the path, I gradually increased the width of the stroke as I proceeded to the foreground.

In a scene like this, shadows are a great way to describe to the viewer the contours of the landscape. Note how the shadows cross the path, describing the slope of the banks and the slight dip in the middle. I slightly increased the density of the wash for the shadows in the foreground, but not by too much. It was essential that the shadow washes be transparent.

It’s interesting to see how the vermilion wash, already on the paper, warms the color of the blue glazed over it. This helps create the feeling of distance, as warm colors come forward and cool colors recede. This is a rule that’s always worth keeping in mind.


Using three quite strong mixtures—a purple-gray mixed from cobalt blue and vermilion; more of the burnt sienna and French ultramarine dark brown mixture; and a rusty brown color made from aureolin and burnt sienna—I placed the colors on both sides of the path. I used the side of a well-worn No. 4 round brush to create the broken, irregular shapes that suggest foliage protruding through the snow.

The final touch was to drybrush a bit of white gouache onto the dark green bushes. I repeated this among the foliage on the banks and here and there on the tree trunks and branches to suggest a light frosting of snow. The gouache, used carefully and sparingly, added another dimension to Woodland Path.

About the Artist

Geoff Kersey is a professional U.K.-based landscape artist who works primarily in watercolor. He shares his love of the medium through his instructional articles, books, videos and workshops.

This article originally appeared in Watercolor Artist, February 2018 issue.

Watch the video: Painting a Winter Landscape in Pastel (August 2022).